‹ Prequel: Black and White

To the End

thirty-two

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It doesn’t get easier. In fact, the days are longer and nights are shorter, and I struggle to feel a connection with Declan. The child who’s half-me, half-Niall. Regret becomes my best friend over the next few weeks: I shouldn’t be doing so poorly at being a mother.

I certainly shouldn’t be wishing I’d never gotten pregnant.

I certainly shouldn’t wish that Declan didn’t exist and that things could be like they were before. When it was just Niall and me, the two of us living out wedded bliss. No baby, only us.

My lungs burn as I fight to breathe. The air comes right back out as a gasping sound, tearing at my throat and joining the cacophony of noise already in the room. My phone lights up on the edge of the changing table, but I remain where I am in the corner of the bedroom. As far away from the cot as I could possibly be.

As far away from the crying baby as I could possibly be.

Declan lets out an ear-piercing squall. Another sob rips from me as guilt and failure battle in my mind. I can’t even take care of my son. What kind of mother am I really? Not a very good one, a voice whispers over the hurricane in my head. When he cries again, my hands itch with the urge to make it stop.

Niall took to being a dad like a duck to water. He’s done so well, has been so wonderful with our child. Everyone has been able to do the right things for Dec.

I can’t.

I can’t.

I don’t know the differences in his cries. I don’t know how to change his diaper while simultaneously getting his bottles ready. Hell, I couldn’t even breastfeed him like a real mother should. How did I ever think I could do this?

You’ve failed. He’s going to hate you, and Niall will leave you because you aren’t good enough.

I’m not.

I scrub a hand over my eyes only for more tears to replace the ones I wipe away. I’m so damn sorry, I think, hoping that Declan can somehow hear and understand my thoughts. That he can hear and know how much I love him even though he’s been given such an awful mother. How much I love him even though I don’t want him.

“Erin, what’s - Love? What happened?”

I bury my face in my knees, choking on air and tears. Of course Niall’s home. He is going to see the mistake he made in marrying me, in having a baby with me. He doesn’t come to me. Instead, his footsteps cross the room quickly but in the opposite direction - toward our son, like the perfect parent he is. Shoving myself to my feet, I sprint toward the door.

He can handle this. I need to get away. Another cry from upstairs. I shudder and trip down the stairs. The pain is negligible, smothered by the burning in my veins. I’m a failure. I’m nothing that Declan needs. Niall will leave, take our son with him, and I’ll be left alone like I deserve.

The echo of the back door slamming shut covers the backyard, and I make my way across the patio, the stones still sun-warmed under my bare feet. A broken sob breaks free as I sit on the edge of the pool, dangling my legs in the water. The added contact against my legs does nothing to help me regain control of myself.

The doubts only grew stronger since we came home from the hospital. I knew I would never be as good of a mother as my mom, as Natalie. Tonight has just cemented that doubt as fact. A manic giggle threatens to strangle me. My heart races beneath my ribs, and shame floats to the surface. It isn’t fair to my husband or child that they got stuck with me.

Now that silence surrounds me, my swirling thoughts war against each other to make themselves known. Anxiety and fear have ramped up everything I have felt since Declan was born. I think about all the times I’ve watched Nat with Levi, the home videos and pictures of my mother with me as a baby. The stories she and my father have told me about their upbringings.

They were all amazing from the start. Everything looked so effortless for them, and they all forged bonds with their children without struggle. So why the Hell is it so hard for me? Because you’re broken. There’s something wrong with you. You will never be what they need.

Warmth presses against my back. I don’t need to turn my head to recognise it. Niall’s body is as familiar to me as my own. His breath ghosts across the back of my neck, and he pulls me in against his chest as he lets his legs rest beside mine. I focus on the fact he was smart enough to roll up the hems of his jeans.

The hems of my sweatpants are soaked. Another way I’ve failed. Gods, I can’t even be smart enough to do something so small as not put my clothes in the pool.

The maelstrom quiets with his tight hold on me. A familiar clicking noise sounds from next to my head, followed by Niall coughing, and he passes over a lit cigarette. I stare at it for a long moment before taking it from him with trembling fingers.

I’m not shocked he knows where I’ve kept the pack hidden away. I’m only surprised that he’s willing to sit here with me while I smoke. He hasn’t exactly kept his opinions about my smoking a cigarette.

The last of the birds fall silent, leaving only the songs of nocturnal insects to fill the quiet. The fresh air and Niall’s cologne are enough to bring me the first tendrils of peace. My body goes abruptly lax; the leftover tension and panic fades away. I let myself sag into him as I finish the cigarette.

Glass scrapes against stone, and I glance down to see my husband nudging an ashtray toward me. Sniffing back more tears, I stub the butt against the bottom and exhale heavily. I drop my head back to rest on Niall’s shoulder, and his lips press warmly to my temple.

“What happened?”

“I… gods, I’m a fucking failure,” I mutter as I close my eyes. The navy sky disappears, replaced by utter darkness. “I tried everything I could think of, but he just - he wouldn’t stop crying. I fed him, I changed him, burped him. I even sang to him while rocking him for over an hour. I just couldn’t get him to stop.”

“Oh, darling. Why didn’t you call me? Or your mum?”

“Why? So you guys can see just how shitty of a mother I am? I can’t even comfort my child, so something must be wrong with me.” My voice cracks with the lump in my throat, the guilt and self-hatred that I can’t shake.

“Erin, you are not a bad mum. You’re overwhelmed and exhausted. You’re stressed. But I promise you’ll figure it out soon.”

“Well, Nat never had this problem. Neither did Mom.”

Niall buries his face in my hair, sighs. “Did you ever stop to think that maybe they did have this problem but kept it to themselves, just like you’re doing?”

“No.”

He huffs out a laugh at my reluctant admission. “Maybe you should talk to them. Because as alone as you feel in this, I can guarantee that you’re not.”

All I can do is nod slowly. Words don’t exist right now. He hums quietly in my ear, the gentle strains of the song I recognise as Flicker. Water laps at our legs as we sit there, and I let go of the rest of my fears.

Eventually, he runs a hand along my arm and asks if I’m ready to go inside yet. My head is shaking before he even finishes speaking. I don’t want to leave the tranquillity of the backyard - what if it destroys the rickety foundation of calm I’ve slowly begun to relax into? He hesitates then hooks a finger under my chin, turns my face toward him.

The kiss is soft, sweet, a promise of together and our future. Our forever, all wrapped up in one. Niall stands, taking care to not push me in the pool by accident, and picks up the gold and white box from off the patio next to us. Lips tugging into a frown, he hands me another cigarette and the lighter.

“I’ll be inside when you’re ready, love.”

I watch him vanish into the darkness of our house, the quiet voice telling me I will never be ready. Niall can’t wait forever.

The only sounds in the bedroom are Declan’s steady breathing and the soft plinks of piano coming from the music-box on the shelf. I stare down at the sleeping baby and stroke a finger over his light downy hair. A feeble ray of hope flickers to life in my chest, the flame quivering valiantly as it struggles to retain life. I can’t stop doubting Niall’s promise.

The longer I watch Declan sleep, the more terrified I get. The more I want to run away and leave everything behind. My chest tightens, and I force myself to lean down to press a gentle kiss to his forehead. It amazes me, really, how ready I am to give up but also not wanting to throw in the towel quite yet.

Niall has showered and is already lying down by the time I turn to our bed. He watches me closely as I drop my sweatpants into the hamper and pad across the room. His arms open when I slide in between the sheets, and I scoot close to him until there’s no space between us. Breathing in the familiar scent, I can relax now.

Even in the worst of times, just having him near made it all so much easier to handle. He’s helped me through Jem, my father, and now this. Us being parents. I say a silent prayer that having him by my side is enough to pull me through this, if only for his and Declan’s sakes.

Niall, thankfully, doesn’t bring up what happened. Instead, he distracts me by holding me tightly and talking to me about the progress he’s made on his album. I close my eyes and listen to his voice, the rhythmic beating of his heart beneath my ear, and every unspoken I love you in his words.